Traditional Marriage’s Enduring Virtues

By Khin Nyunt

Over the past few years, lots of money and ink has been spent arguing about gay marriage, but not enough attention has been paid to the implications of this issue for our understanding of what marriage as a relationship and an institution is. The gay marriage debate is just one part of a larger debate about the nature and definition of marriage. At the heart of this argument is a clash between two different conceptions of marriage: the modern and the traditional. In recent decades, society has been engaged in redefining marriage, embracing a new understanding of marriage in order to intellectually legitimize innovations like cohabitation, out of wedlock birth, no-fault divorce, and gay marriage.  However, despite the insistence by the educated elite that the traditional definition is bigoted and unreasonable, it is clear today more than ever that it is rationally superior to the modern conception.

Grover Cleveland entering into a traditional marriage.
Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case that overturned Proposition 8 in California, captures much of the modern understanding. He writes, “Marriage requires two parties to give their free consent to form a relationship, which then forms the foundation of a household. The spouses must consent to support each other and any dependents. The state regulates marriage because marriage creates stable households, which in turn form the basis of a stable, governable populace…The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household.”  This definition says nothing about the gender or sexual complementarity of the spouses; in fact, the relationship need not be sexual at all. All it requires is that two people agree to form a relationship and live together. The existence of dependents is thought to characterize only some of these unions, and thus they are optional, incidental to the main purposes of marriage. Though Walker concedes here that the state has a legitimate interest in marriage, nevertheless the modern view tends to think of marriage as an essentially private relationship centered on the private purposes of two adults. This is a crucial aspect of the modern conception of marriage; the culture of divorce in America (49% of marriages in America end in divorce) underscores the prevalent view that marriage is to be entered into insofar as it promotes the happiness of both spouses and left behind as soon as one or the other of the spouses becomes unsatisfied with it.  A witticism of Zsa Zsa Gabor is very telling on this point: “I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house.” The breezy view towards divorce, and the corresponding understanding that marriage is subordinated to almost every other good, even material possessions, is widely held today. Finally, the private purposes of those entering into marriage are, under this view, pretty much irrelevant; there is no sense in which a particular intent is intrinsic to the modern conception of marriage.

The traditional view of marriage — not only as it was upheld by law, but as it was understood by society and enforced by cultural institutions — is radically different. As scholars associated with the Witherspoon Institute define it in their document “Marriage and the Public Good,” marriage is “a matrix of human relationships rooted in the spouses’ sexual complementarity and procreative possibilities, and in children’s need for sustained parental nurture and support…the sexually faithful union, intended for life, between one man and one woman, open to the begetting and rearing of children.”  Marriage is understood in this view to be a unique, unitive, faithful, and life-long relationship between one man and one woman, one which unites the man and the woman at every level of life: sexual, biological, emotional, material, legal, and spiritual. In marriage, the biological complementarity between men and women forms the basis of a sexual union that has an essentially procreative dimension, and this sexual union is the foundation of a complete and multi-layered union, a sharing of life between two people. Because sex was understood not merely as a gratification of sensual pleasure, but as a deeply interpersonal and unitive act that ought not to be isolated from the complete union that occurs in marriage, the traditional culture of marriage viewed pre-martial sex as in a sense a betrayal of the future union between husband and wife, and so it enjoined abstinence upon the unmarried. Chastity — abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within it — was taken to be absolutely essential to the integrity of the marital union. Finally, though privately the marriage relationship was thought to further the happiness and flourishing of the man and the woman that entered into it, marriage in this understanding also has a vital public purpose: to attach mothers and fathers to their children so that the next generation may be raised and educated in a stable and loving family.

Most people today have adopted the modern view, and rejected the traditional view (usually, however, without understanding it). However, the traditional view is in fact rationally preferable to the modern one for many reasons, of which three crucial reasons stand out. First, it does not make selective use of tradition. One logical inconsistency at the heart of the modern view is that proponents of it want to rely on tradition when it is useful, but reject it when they don’t like it. This is clearest in the question of polygamy, although it can be seen in other aspects as well. There is logical reason why, given the modern view of marriage, it could not be extended to polygamists. Yet, most people who do hold the modern view reject polygamy. Judge Walker rejects it because he says that marriage has historically required “two parties to give their free consent to form a relationship”; but marriage has historically also required many other things, including sexual complementarity and chastity. In his opinion, Walker argued that appeals to tradition or history are not sufficient to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples.

        However, in that very same opinion, when trying to present a view of what marriage is, he refers to the characteristics that it has retained throughout history, like its restriction to two people. It is incoherent to appeal to history to restrict marriage to two parties, but then say that appeals to history are irrelevant when it comes to the sexual complementarity of the spouses.

C.S. Lewis discussed in his Abolition of Man the foolishness of trying to accept only part of tradition:

This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all values are rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies,’ all consist of fragments from the Tao itself. Arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity.

In definitional debates, either appeals to history and tradition are valid or they are not valid (in which case language, which is inherently traditional, is in trouble); the modern view wants to say they are partially valid, which is an illogical position.

Second, the traditional view is rationally preferable because it allows us to distinguish between different kinds of relationships. Under the modern view of marriage, in which pre-martial sex, cohabitation, and no-fault divorce are permissible, the distinctions between marriage and other kinds of relationships quickly disappear. Those who were married in the traditional view were those who had a sexual relationship with each other, lived together, bore and raised children, etc. Under the modern view, however, none of those qualities are uniquely marital, and therefore the uniqueness of the marital relationship as distinguished from other kinds of relationships is lost. In fact, marriage is really no longer seen as a unique kind of relationship with unique qualities, but as some sort of semi-permanent living arrangement.

Judge Walker’s decision makes this abundantly clear. In his definition, if two people agree to live together, to form a relationship, and to support each other, they have met the conditions for marriage. But in fact all sorts of non-marital relationships would meet this definition; if a sister who had a child moved in with a brother who agreed to support her and her child financially until she could find a job and her own place, they could in principle be considered married under this definition. A myriad of such cases could be presented. Any view of marriage and sex which does not allow us to distinguish in principle between different kinds of relationships (that of friends, of roommates, of siblings, of spouses etc) is rationally inferior to a view which does make those distinctions, because the definition which does not make these distinctions makes a mess out of language and results in manifest absurdities (like allowing for no logical distinctions between cohabiting friends or siblings and a married couple). If a definition of marriage cannot distinguish between friendship and marriage, it is a useless definition and ought to be abandoned.

Third, the traditional understanding is superior because it holds that procreation and the raising of children is a crucial aspect of marriage. Much of the rhetoric about marriage today looks at it from the point of view of the adults, assuming that marriage is essentially about the private happiness of two adults of whatever gender. Without denying the importance of marriage to the spouses’ happiness and flourishing, the traditional view recognizes that one of the crucial purposes of marriage is to provide for a stable, loving context in which to bear, raise, and educate children. Even though the definition of Judge Walker doesn’t require it, in most people’s minds marriage is still, to some degree, associated with sex, which means that it’s associated, both biologically and in people’s minds, with procreation (often times directly so). There is therefore a conflict between the modern understanding of marriage, and the widely shared private desires and expectations of marriage. A definition that recognizes this essential fact about marriage, that escapes this contradiction between the theoretical conception of marriage and the procreative expectations of marriage is a better one than a definition that does not.

Furthermore, a child-centered understanding that views these procreative expectations as essential to marriage is preferable to an adult-centered one for two other reasons.

First, it is better to conceive of marriage as centered around children because social science studies indicate that a strong and stable marriage between one man and one woman is the best context for the well being of the child, and an intact family structure that connects mothers and fathers to their children is the best thing for the flourishing of the parents and the children (many of these studies can be found in the Witherspoon Institute’s “Marriage and the Public Good” and a report from the Institute for American Values entitled “Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences”). Therefore, if we care about children, we ought to conceive of marriage in a way that recognizes the importance of the institution to children.

Second, a child-centered understanding is preferable because the bearing, raising, and educating of children is of vital public importance to society. For society to survive and flourish, it needs an institution that gives birth to the next generation and forms them into good citizens. Marriage is uniquely suited to do this, but when the traditional understanding of marriage gives way to the modern one, marriage begins to fail at this purpose. Declining birth rates in European societies that have fully embraced the modern conception, as well as the increased prevalence of poverty, crime, and poor education in inter-city areas in which cohabitation and out of wedlock birth are common occurrences amply demonstrate the importance of the traditional understanding to the public purposes of marriage.

Furthermore, strong family structure was once seen as one of the most important meditating institutions that came between individuals and the government, ensuring ordered republican freedom and limited government by performing civic functions in a non-political way (the importance of mediating institutions is well established by the famous sociologist Robert Nisbet in his book The Quest for Community). But recent decades have shown that strong family structure cannot flourish absent a strong marriage culture that upholds the traditional understanding of marriage. Society therefore benefits enormously when a strong marriage culture that upholds as normative the traditional view of marriage exists.

For these three reasons — the inconsistency of embracing part of tradition, the maintenance of distinctions between relationships, and the importance of a child-centered understanding for the flourishing of the child and of society — we ought to rationally prefer the traditional conception of marriage to the modern one.

This preference, however, would logically mean revisiting our societal, cultural, and legal views on issues like pre-martial sex, cohabitation, divorce, out-of-wedlock birth, contraception, same-sex marriage and other innovations that are in disharmony with the thriving of a strong marriage culture that upholds as normative the traditional understanding of marriage.

Our culture may not be eager to undertake such a project, but if the traditional understanding of marriage really is superior to the modern one, then that re-evaluation really is the rational way forward.